7 Rules for Great Technical Presentations

One of the hardest things to do in life is to express one’s ideas to another person. While good communication skills are a “nice to have” for most human interaction, when it comes to making software it’s crucial.

To paraphrase Vince Lombardi, when it comes to software, the ability to express an idea meaningfully and accurately isn’t the only thing, it’s everything. Software is by nature intangible. What is code but the expression of an abstraction held in the head of a developer communicated to another developer or to a machine. In order for software to come alive, ideas must flow between people and machines.

We developers are pretty good at talking to individuals and machines. It’s when the time comes to talk to a room full of strangers that we have trouble. While our work might carry an intrinsic excitement to those in the know, when it comes to time to share our thinking with an unknown audience, dreariness is more the rule than the exception. It’s as if somewhere along the line the message came down that all you need to do to make a technical presentation is to create some PowerPoint slides, get up in front of the room and then talk through your PowerPoint backdrop.

Well, I am here to tell you that if you do as described above, you’ll get the inevitable: a room full of people that will probably remember one thing when your presentation is over-it was boring.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Just about anybody can deliver a highly technical presentation that is engaging, entertaining and informative. There are a variety of ways to learn how to do so. My offering is the7 Rules for Making Great Technical Presentations:

    1. Know thy stuff
    2. It’s a show; you’re an actor; get used to it
    3. Understand that it is really, really hard to look ridiculous
    4. Forget PowerPoint; tell a story
    5. Play Charades a lot
    6. Example, examples, examples
    7. It takes three shots to get it right

1. Know Thy Stuff

The first trick to doing a great technical presentation is that you really have to know a whole lot about your topic. The difference between an expert professional and an infomercial celebrity is that the professional brings the weight of authority to a presentation. When you are an expert, it shows at an almost subliminal level. You can teach an expert to be a showman. But it’s rare to be able to teach a showman to be an expert.

2. It’s a Show; You’re an Actor; Get Used to It

Your presentation is a performance in which you are an actor playing the lead role. Thus, the fundamentals of acting count-clear diction, intentional movement, awareness of the environment, focus on the audience, sincerity in articulation, engaging script-all the stuff that makes a movie worth watching are in play when you are giving your talk.

Your presentation is a show. Sure, attendees might they’re there to get the technical lowdown about the topic at hand. But once seated, they want to be entertained. Your talk is just one of the hundreds of other reality shows that fill their lives. Thus, you’ll do well to understand, as much as you might not really want to accept it, that your primary responsibility is to engage and entertain your audience. Content comes second.

A good presenter can read from the telephone book and make it entertaining. Set this as your standard and work from there.

3. Understand That It’s Really, Really Hard to Look Ridiculous

I’ve worked with a lot of developers on technical presentations. The one thing just about all report to me is the fear of looking ridiculous while trying to engage audience.

The funny thing is that most people, developers included, underestimate how much work it takes to look ridiculous. Even if a developer were to get up on the podium and sing the open lines to New York, New York, the chances of him or her being deemed ridiculous are slim. In fact, the odds are that the audience really take notice because something out of the ordinary was about to happen. Remember, it’s all about engaging the audience and holding their attention. What the general population self-consciously considers to “look ridiculous” is to the seasoned professional, the prelude to a good performance. Just ask Harpo Marx.

4. Forget PowerPoint; Tell a Story

Overreliance on PowerPoint slides has brought more presentations to its knees than a ring full of World Wide Federation wrestlers. Unless you are trying to illustrate a very complex technical idea, PowerPoint slides are a distraction.

The trick to giving a good presentation is having the ability to tell a good story. Storytellers have been around since time immemorial, well before radio, movies, and the Internet. You don’t need PowerPoint to tell a story well. All you need is your imagination and the ability to stir the imagination of your audience.

Find the good story in your presentation, and then tell it in a way that matters to you. If your story does not matter to you, it will never matter to your audience.

5. Play Charades Often

Most people spend too much time talking in a presentation. While it is true that abstraction can be communicated best via the spoken word, words are not the best vehicle to convey the drama of an idea. Communicating drama requires more. Your position on the stage, the gestures that you make with your hands and face all communicate something to the audience. It’s the drama of your presentation that makes it engaging.

One of the easiest ways to develop mastery of speaking without words is the parlor game, Charades. Charades is a game is which you try to get your audience to guess a phrase or term by using body movement only. You cannot talk.Once verbal language is removed from the scene, the presenter can, in a playful manner, develop all the other skills required to tell a story well.

No doubt playing Charades requires a certain amount of daring and peer approval. But the benefits are worth overcoming the fear of looking ridiculous. After all, it takes a lot of work to look ridiculous, more than can ever be demonstrated during a game of Charades.

6. Examples, Examples, Examples

Audiences love a demo. Audiences love examples. If you find you have a presentation on your hands that has no demo or is void is examples, you’re going to have a very hard time keeping the attention of your audience.

Every time you introduce a concept, follow it up with an example. The more demonstration and examples you provide, the clearer your story becomes and the less talking you have to do. The more you “show”, the better your audience will understand. Examples work! Use them early and often.

7. It Takes 3 Shots to Get it Right

It is the rare person that can deliver a great presentation right off the bat. Good presentations take rehearsal. Chris Rock takes years to get his stand up routine just right. Malcolm Gladwell memorizes every word of his talks beforehand in order to deliver a talk that appears off the cuff. Those in the know rehearse.

Whenever I am to give a talk, I plan on doing at least three run throughs beforehand. The first time I just meander my way through and give myself the luxury to make mistakes. The second time I get over my mistakes and try make an unflawed delivery. The third run through I find the way to make the presentation special. I pay attention to my pacing, my physical movement, the coherence of my message and the flow of my language. I watch my story arc-create engagement, build up to the point and then provide motivating closure.

Remember, the third time is the charm.

Conclusion

When it comes to making a great technical presentation, you are the expert actor telling a wonderful story that will change the way your audience thinks and works. Your audience wants to be entertained. The ways you move are just as important as the words that you use. Remember, the audience came to see you.

Technical facts, figures and illustrations are part of your presentation, but not the most important part. The most important part of your presentation is your audience. The second most important part is your story.

Don’t let PowerPoint slides get in your way. Use slides to illustrate key technical points, but not to tell your story. The story is yours. You are the storyteller. The audience is the beneficiary.

And, remember it takes a lot of work to look ridiculous, far beyond the ability of the workaday technologist. So don’t worry about it. Just tell your story and entertain your audience.

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